At one airstrip, the anonymous crewman says, just before 844AA arrived, a 727 flying for a competing company crashed on landing and skidded off the runway. Although the crew survived, he says, some local residents were killed. “We gave [the other flight crew] a lift out of there but not before going over to their airplane and stealing some parts that we needed. That’s when I decided it was time to go home.”
Before he left, he says, a “big African showed up with a briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills. It was payday.” Besides paying the crew, the money was supposed to pay off accumulated airport fees and fuel costs.
“After that,” the crewman says, “I created a family emergency…. I said, ‘My mother is sick.’ ” He promised he’d return in two weeks and left. “I had no intentions of going back, of course. I didn’t get anywhere near full pay, but I got enough that I could pay my bills and make it not completely worthless.”
By the end of April, all of the Americans except Mike Gabriel had left.
Irwin hired a local crew and continued to deliver fuel to the mines, but he was ready to leave too. The civil war in Angola had ended. Competition among fuel haulers, Irwin says, had intensified, and he was growing more uncomfortable with the delivery deals. His partners were claiming part ownership of the aircraft, but Maury Joseph had not been paid. Joseph, meanwhile, sent a crew to swap an engine from the 727. Finally, Irwin says, he was being followed—by a local man named Antonio, who, Irwin believes, was working for one of his partners. “I would turn around,” Irwin says, “and spot Antonio watching me from a car.”
Irwin began wedging a chair under the door handle of his hotel room “just like you see in the movies.” One night, he heard a key card slide into the slot on the door. The lock released. “I started yelling and whoever it was ran,” he says. The hotel security guards questioned the night clerk and learned that he had accepted a bribe to provide the key card. Irwin left the country the next day and didn’t go back.
Maury Joseph fired Mike Gabriel some time that spring. “He kept convincing me that next week, next month…,” Joseph says, referring to the outstanding balance owed on the airplane.
In May 2002, the only part of the original 844AA project left at the Luanda airport was 844AA.
THE SON OF A FLORIDA MILLWRIGHT, Ben Charles Padilla Jr. was always mechanically gifted, says sister Benita Padilla-Kirkland, and from the time he was a boy, he loved airplanes. In his mid-20s he learned to fly and became certified as an airframe-and-powerplant mechanic. He lived in south Florida with two children, one his own, and a fiancée of 15 years. (Efforts to contact her were unsuccessful.) Though the two weren’t married, Padilla gave her power of attorney in his absence and made her the executor of his estate, according to Padilla-Kirkland, and left her almost everything in his will.
“He certainly knew the airplane,” says Maury Joseph. Padilla was a freelancer, who had worked for Joseph on two jobs before traveling to Angola to repossess 844AA. Padilla had worked extensively in Africa. He helped Joseph ferry a 727 to Nigeria for a sale and during the negotiations stayed to explain the aircraft systems. “If you said, ‘Go to Cambodia and do this’ or ‘Go to Indonesia and do this’ or ‘Go to South America and do this’ he would do it. [When in Nigeria] I was with Ben daily for a month or more,” says Joseph. “You become fairly close to somebody when you’re with them day and night.” Joseph trusted him.